Prior to closing a deal with the federal government to rebuilt Puerto Rico’s power grid, a Trump donor-funded electric company failed to open a factory, and only worked on a handful of small projects.
Despite that thin record, Montana-based Whitefish Energy was selected last week to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was struggling even before Hurricane Maria. The project is estimated to cost $300 million — nearly 300 times the price of the largest project Whitefish Energy has previously completed.
Before securing the Puerto Rico deal, Whitefish Energy’s only federal contracts were for installing power lines or working on electrical stations in Arizona. Public records show Whitefish Energy’s first federal contract in September 2016 was for $134,000 deal to install power lines in Arizona. The company’s second contracts was a $38,000 agreement to finish some remaining work on the Arizona power lines. Its final contract, secured in July 2017, was a $1.3 million job at an Arizona electrical substation.
A Whitefish Energy spokesperson said the company shouldn’t be judged on those projects, alone.
“Those two projects you referred to are ones specific to Whitefish, is in no way a full representation of [CEO Andy Techmanski’s] book of work,” spokesperson Chris Chiames told The Daily Beast. “Whitefish CEO has a 20+year career in the utility industry, starting as a journeyman lineman and eventually holding project management and executive jobs with utility repair companies. Over the course of his career, he has worked on projects of all sizes, up to and including ones for $200+ million.”
But not all Techmanski’s business ventures have panned out. In 2010, he founded California nonprofit Energized International, which folded in 2010 citing “financial hardship,” according to state business records.
Whitefish has only been in business since June 2015, Montana business records show. The company lists approximately $1 million in annual revenue, and two full-time employees on publicly available documents.
When Whitefish Energy opened in 2015, it billed itself as a power line construction company. But business appears to have been slow. Public records show the company earning no federal contracts within its first year of business. The following year, Whitefish Energy sold a 51 percent stake to the Brazilian transformer company Comtrafo, Montana’s Daily Inter Lake reported.
Shortly after the sale, Whitefish Energy was back in the news with headline-grabbing offer: the company had rebranded as a transformer manufacturer, and would open a 1,000-job transformer plant in Montana. But the offer came with a catch. Before they built the factory, Whitefish Energy wanted Montana utilities companies to buy approximately $20 million in transformers, Montana’s Hungry Horse News reported at the time. The companies did not agree to the purchase, and the project stalled.
After Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, Whitefish moved to beef up its staff. Whitefish told CNN on Friday that it had approximately 300 staff on Puerto Rico, and was hoping to bring another 700 to the island, along with construction equipment, which was stuck in Florida at the time.
“Andy Techmanski founded Whitefish on a business model that had a small company staff that was able to scale up quickly to take on jobs of all sizes,” Chiames said, adding that the company has added workers in Puerto Rico “at a rate of 10-20 per day as workers are cleared for duty and more equipment is delivered to the island.”
Whitefish has been working in Puerto Rico since September 26, although the company’s early efforts were slowed when they found planes backed up at Puerto Rico’s airports. Techmanski told NBC Montana on October 1 that he asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for help getting Whitefish Energy onto the ground in Puerto Rico. (Techmanski told CNN last week “we called each other” when asked how Whitefish got the federal government’s business.)
Techmanski and Zinke know each other personally, the Washington Post reported. Whitefish Energy takes its name from the town of Whitefish, Montana, where both men live. Zinke’s office told the Post that they two men only know each other because Whitefish is a small town where “everybody knows everybody.” One of Zinke’s sons took a summer job at one of Techmanski’s construction sites, but Techmanski and Zinke’s office told the Post that the Zinke connection played no factor in Whitefish Energy’s bid for the Puerto Rico contract.
Whitefish Energy’s investors are also well-connected in the Trump administration. Whitefish Energy is backed by HBC Investments, a Texas-based firm whose founder gave $20,000 to the Trump Victory PAC, as well as the maximum $2,700 to both Trump’s primary and general election campaigns, and $30,700 to the Republican National Committee in 2016, the Daily Beast previously reported.